T H E  N E T W O R K  O B S E R V E R

  VOLUME 1, NUMBER 3                                    MARCH 1994


  This month: The Internet as a commons
              A network support group for new teachers


  Welcome to TNO 1(3).

  This issue includes an uplifting article by Jonathan Grudin on
  The Beginning Teachers Computer Network, a network set up to help
  new graduates of the Harvard School of Education teacher training
  program survive their first year of teaching.  How can this fine
  system serve as a model for others?  Which features of it are
  crucial?  It's hard to say for sure, but it does involve people
  who have known one another in person but who have scattered
  geographically while still sharing stressful experiences in a
  new activity without necessarily having adequate support systems.
  What else is like this?  New doctors from medical school?  New
  parents from birthing classes?  Newly sober alcoholics from AA
  meetings?  People who have similar physical disabilities, newly
  released from hospitals or physical therapy programs?  Circles of
  elderly friends newly dispersed to nursing homes?  Perhaps all of
  these groups could use electronic alumni associations.

  Aside from Leslie Regan Shade's article on Canada, TNO 1(2) was
  far too polemical.  TNO 1(3) returns to the path of constructive
  criticism with some reflections on the Internet as a commons.
  Most Internet institutions are still remarkably open, in the
  sense that anybody can join and anybody can send messages at any
  time.  Will this last?  Will hordes of unacculturated beginners
  overwhelm it?  Will advertising overwhelm it?  Will cumbersome
  billing software overwhelm it?  Will people start building walls
  around their network communities?  Maybe not -- if we understand
  and apply some principles for the maintenance of a commons.


  The Internet as a commons.

  With the Internet growing exponentially, cultural emergencies are
  breaking out.  TNO 1(2) described one of these, the unfortunate
  practice of teachers telling students to ask basic questions on
  Internet discussion lists.  There's also the fairly widespread
  Internet traffic in digitized pornography, advertisements sent
  unsolicited to individuals or discussion lists, high-bandwidth
  video signals sent over long distances without full regard for
  the consequences for folks along the way, and so forth.

  Yet another is the following irritating dynamic:

    * Someone wishes to subscribe to a given discussion list, so
  they send a request directly to the list rather than to the list
  maintainer (probably because nobody ever told them how).

    * The request goes out to several hundred readers, a few of
  whom mistakenly reply to it, and these replies also go out to the
  whole list.

    * Whereupon several more readers send notes to the whole list
  complaining about the previous messages.

    * Whereupon several people wish to remove themselves from the
  discussion list, but they don't know how, so they send messages
  to the whole list.

    * Whereupon several more readers send out-and-out flames
  demanding that everyone else stop sending them meaningless

  Many readers of TNO are no doubt aware of other such phenomena.

  What can we do about these problems?  One common response is to
  promulgate rules or etiquette guidelines or "principles of user
  responsibility" and so forth.  In each case, the image is one of
  restraining unfortunate behavior through written instructions,
  which does not work very well.

  But more effective responses exist.  One of them, crucially
  different from the rules and guidelines, is to write instructions
  for the most effective ways of using the net to get things done,
  including clear explanations of *why* these methods work best.
  I've tried to write a couple of these things myself (see past
  issues of TNO for details), and I hope that others will too.  (No
  doubt they have; if you know of any, please tell me.)  In writing
  these things, I was influenced both by how-to-get-ahead books
  for business people and by books about the practice of democratic
  organizing for political people.  The point is to appeal both to
  self-interest and to shared values, not to authority.

  Here's the wonderful thing.  Given how the net works, it happens
  that the most effective ways of networking, getting help, finding
  information, gathering people together, making friends, and so
  forth are also the most socially responsible ways of doing these
  things.  Why is this?  It's because of the network's tremendous
  capacity for cultural self-regulation.  The most obvious example
  of this phenomenon is the suppression of anti-social advertising
  methods.  The net is full of people looking for business models
  these days, and several books and newsletters promise to explain
  how to advertise on the net.  These people have caused much
  worry among net inhabitants who envision receiving floods of junk
  e-mail and the like.  There are certainly things to worry about,
  but in my view this isn't one of them.  Internet folks have
  already suppressed numerous outbreaks of anti-social advertising
  through the simple method of flooding the offenders with flaming
  complaints.  While ill-tempered flaming has its own costs, the
  basic method is an important one.  Imagine if it were just as
  easy to complain to the people who send you *paper* junk mail.

  What the Internet needs, then, is not rules and guidelines but
  a more fully functioning set of community standards.  Although
  laws are certainly necessary for many sorts of things, community
  standards are better than laws because they are more flexible,
  more situational, cheaper, less dependent on supposedly objective
  authorities, and basically decentralized.  Community standards
  are the best way to regulate a commons.  And that's what the
  Internet is -- a commons.  What does that mean?  Well, we're
  not talking about common ownership, since the Internet is owned
  by all sorts of organizations.  Rather, we're talking about a
  certain social system within the Internet, which includes, for
  example, the convention that discussion lists are open to all.

  This could change.  The Internet could fragment into a bunch of
  separate spheres, each with its own gatekeeper.  It won't happen
  right away, since most of the people who run Internet discussion
  lists and the like are still primarily interested in attracting
  people, not keeping them away.  Notice that many of the people
  who run important Internet facilities, for example bibliographies
  and Listserv lists, are based at relatively marginal institutions
  -- the ones that we in the United States sometimes jokingly refer
  to as "Southwestern East Kansas State" and the like.  Those jokes
  can be their own form of bigotry, but the phenomenon is real: the
  net is providing people at the periphery of the global research
  system with ways of building a community for themselves by
  providing a useful public service.  Let's hope it stays that way.

  Garrett Hardin's classic paper "The Tragedy of the Commons" is
  often quoted to demonstrate the impossibility of a real commons.
  If everyone can graze their sheep on the commons, he points out,
  then everyone has an interest in maximum grazing, thus ensuring
  that the commons will be quickly worn out.  Likewise with fishing
  in the world's oceans; many fish stocks are in grave danger of
  being fished out, and the fishing fleets of newly industrialized
  countries often fail to see the wisdom of collective management
  administered by institutions dominated by the very countries that
  fished the stocks down to dangerous levels in the first place.
  Is Internet bandwidth a commons, just like fish stocks?  Market
  economic theories tend to assume that it is, simply because some
  people can profit by using more and more of it.

  But, as Hardin points out, a commons *can* work if it has a
  functioning system of community standards.  In this context, of
  course, a "system" is not a piece of hardware, nor is it a set
  of written rules.  Rather, it's a set of customs, together with
  a form of social organization that ensures that everyone has an
  interest in upholding those customs.  When people's lives are
  heavily intertwined, as in a small town, and when the society is
  not too badly stratified, then reputation is an effective means
  of restraining anti-social uses of the commons.  Another system
  is to place the commons under the management of respected elders,
  a system that obviously has a delicate set of preconditions.  At
  bottom, maintenance of a commons always requires a holistic ethic
  of care, which can retain the benefits of managing the commons
  as a whole and avoid the disadvantages of chopping it up into
  separate domains.  To learn more about the history and customs of
  the commons, read the following tremendous book, by the editors
  of the British environmentalist journal The Ecologist:

    The Ecologist, Whose Common Future?: Reclaiming the Commons,
    Philadelphia: New Society Press, 1993.  NSP's phone number is
    +1 (215) 382 6543.  You can order by phone, or by mail at 4527
    Springfield Avenue, Philadelphia PA 19143.  It's $14.95 plus
    $2.50 s&h.

  How should we maintain the commons of the Internet, so that
  everyone can keep on benefitting from its openness?  I don't have
  all the answers, but here are some thoughts, in two groups: first
  things that are more "social", then technical things.

   * Complaints.  When someone does something on the net that
  seems anti-social, send them a note.  I don't think it serves any
  purpose to send people flaming hate-mail; after all, you might
  change your mind once you learn more facts, and non-hardened
  offenders are more likely to see reason if they're treated
  reasonably.  Also, it's good not to give such complaints a bad
  name by being arbitrary or rude.  If such complaints become a
  widespread practice (as they already are for many purposes) then
  they'll serve as an automatic referendum on marginal forms of
  network behavior.

   * Story-telling.  Recount stories about net behavior.  The
  recent article by Julian Dibbell in in The Village Voice ("A
  Rape in Cyberspace", 12/21/93) about some unsettling goings-on in
  the Xerox PARC LambdaMOO system is a good example.  Stories are
  good ways to transmit values, to occasion debates about values,
  and to provide models for understanding and responding to future
  instances of questionable behavior.  When disputes arise about
  proper net use, and when community standards have to be invoked
  to suppress unfortunate network behavior, it's important to tell
  stories about the events, and to keep on telling the stories for
  the benefit of others.

   * Curriculum materials.  Nowadays anyone can choose from among
  a wide variety of texts about the technical aspects of using the
  Internet.  What students learning about networks need now, in my
  view, is a textbook of the social aspects of network use.  How
  do you get things done on the net?  Again, the point is not to
  constrain users' activities with rules.  Rather, the point is to
  provide the methods that work -- methods that are consistent with
  community standards, and that contribute to the atmosphere of
  helpfulness that now prevails on the net.

   * Network Watch.  Let's imagine an organization called Network
  Watch whose purpose is to bring unfortunate network practices on
  the part of large organizations to the attention of the network
  community.  This could include simple things, like advertising
  practices, but it could also include more sophisticated things,
  such as the diversion of personal information to purposes other
  than those for which it was collected.  Obviously such a group
  would have to be cautious and encourage debate about what is and
  isn't legitimate network activity, and it should keep reminding
  itself that its most important weapon is publicity, but it
  should also call for e-mail campaigns, boycotts, and other forms
  of pressure against particularly grievous or chronic offenders.
  (See, for example, TNO 1(1)'s article on Internet action alerts.)
  It could also serve as a contact point for people who have been
  harmed by unfortunate network practices, or it could form an
  alliance with publications such as the Privacy Journal that
  already serve this purpose.  The possibilities for such campaigns
  are unlimited.  A great deal of inspiration can be gotten from
  labor unions' "corporate campaigns", which pressure organizations
  to conform to community standards in pay and working conditions
  by mapping out the full range of the organization's connections
  in the world (directors, customers, suppliers, bankers, etc)
  and applying pressure on the ones that seem vulnerable to public
  criticism.  The great virtue of such campaigns is that, more or
  less, they don't work unless the community decides that the cause
  is just.  (For more info on corporate campaigns, see issue #21 of
  Labor Research Review, which is available for $8 plus $1 s&h from
  the Midwest Center for Labor Research, 3411 West Diversey Avenue
  Suite 10, Chicago IL 60647, USA, phone +1 (312) 278-5418.)

  Technical things:

   * Interface.  Many unfortunate social dynamics have their
  ultimate causes in bad interfaces that mislead users -- with the
  common result that the users make mistakes by trying to use new
  systems by analogy to systems they already know.  We know a lot
  about designing good interfaces by now, so we should do it.  In
  particular, it's quite important to watch some new users trying
  to use the system, and to encourage new users to write about
  their experiences, since the long-timers have usually forgotten
  what the hard parts are.

   * Concrete instructions.  The worst set of net-user instructions
  I've ever seen are for an elaborate system of discussion groups
  and archives for people doing research in a field that shall
  remain nameless.  The instructions are detailed, but they are
  basically useless to anybody except experts because they are full
  of abstractions like "issue a "send" command", where the meaning
  of "issue an xxx command" is explained somewhere else, in a
  way that itself presupposes that you know about ten other such

   * FAQs.  Many folks on the net maintain lists of frequently
  asked questions (FAQs).  Unfortunately, in my experience you
  usually have to be a world-class neuromancer to actually *find*
  these things.  New net users should be directed to relevant FAQs
  through as many mechanisms as possible, including absolutely
  detailed and concrete directions, if possible down to the precise
  keystrokes, for how to retrieve and read them.  In particular,
  someone who subscribes to a discussion group should automatically
  receive such instructions, along with a clear explanation of what
  a FAQ is.  (Most new users don't know what F.A.Q. stands for!)

   * Bounce-mail.  Bounce-mail refers to the messages you get back
  when your e-mail doesn't get through.  Since I run a mailing
  list, I get lots of bounce-mail and it's all terrible, full of
  extremely obscure and arbitrary codes, with the crumbs of useful
  information so badly formatted that it takes moderate experts
  like me several tries to find it.  And, of course, every mailer
  has its own completely unique format.  Imagine how intimidating
  such messages are to beginners.  Can someone please write an RFP
  for bounce-mail formats?  Can we please generate error messages
  that are written in whole sentences, formatted into whole
  paragraphs, with extra paragraphs explaining the basic idea in
  case the recipient is a beginner?  One of these paragraphs should
  say: If you wish to report this problem to someone, please send
  along this whole bounce-mail message, because otherwise it will
  be impossible to figure out what really happened.

   * Collective memory.  FAQ's are a kind of collective memory.
  We need tools to support the collection of many other kinds of
  collective memory as well.  One possible tool would be a matcher
  that takes a user's question and compares it to *all* of the
  questions in *all* of the FAQ's on the net.  Maybe this wouldn't
  work, given that each FAQ tends to presuppose a certain context
  (e.g., that you're using a certain program or speaking the
  language of a certain discipline, etc), but it's worth a try.

   * Better tools for maintainers.  A lot of problems would be
  solved if it were easier for mailing list maintainers to screen
  the messages that are sent out to them.  Such tools do exist, and
  some maintainers do use them, and claims of censorship do arise,
  for example when people insist on thinking out loud by sending
  large numbers of long messages to a list.  But these issues are
  going to come up, and if we have flexible tools then we can try
  different solutions to them.  The important thing is to share our
  experience, not keep it locked up in a particular person's head
  or a particular systems department.


  The Beginning Teachers Computer Network.

  Jonathan Grudin
  University of California, Irvine
  Information and Computer Science Department

  "The network is one of the most wonderful things a school can
  give to its students."

  The students, in this case, were not really students, they were
  former students: graduates of the Harvard School of Education
  teacher training program.  I spent an hour on the phone with a
  seventh grade teacher in Augusta Georgia, the result of a chance
  conversation with her mother.

  50% to 60% of new teachers leave their profession within 5
  years, she said.  To find out why and to see what could be done
  about it, several years ago Harvard set up the BTCN or Teachers
  Network.  For $25, a graduate can rent a computer and modem for
  a year.  The system comes set up, with an 800 dial-in line and
  hotline help.  The documentation is primarily education on "email
  etiquette" -- actions and feelings to expect on a network.

  The graduates have been through an intense twelve months of
  training.  "We get very close in the program and are then hurled
  off into the cruel world.  The first year of teaching is awful,
  it's very very hard.  It was the worst year I've ever had, the
  hardest thing I've ever done.  It's brutal.  It's hard.  You
  never sleep, you're grading all the time, you're planning all the
  time, you're crying all the time."

  She estimated that 60 of a class of around 100 took the offer
  and joined the network.  Some "forums" are devoted to specific
  disciplines: Humanities, Math & Science, Foreign Languages.
  Others are topics: Classroom Management, Evaluation.  In an
  Introduction forum new participants are guided in trying out the
  technology together.  "Soapbox" is a general forum.  Some Harvard
  faculty participate in the lightly facilitated forums, which are
  also studied for research purposes (a consent form is part of
  the rental agreement).  "Private forums" (person-to-person email)
  are unmonitored.  (Recently they upgraded the system and added a
  "Chat Line" for synchronous communication.  She is unsure the new
  features warrant the increased complexity, though.)

  "It was really lifesaving for me, it kept me grounded when I
  needed it, helped me see what things are mountains, what are
  molehills.  It's a time when you are feeling panicky about
  the world, worried about the future of society and children.
  Classmates really understand things so well.  We could help each
  other in a wonderful way, not naive yet still excited."

  Questions were often specific.  "'I'd like to stress writing, but
  the class is 35 kids, it seems too big...  Should I teach Julius
  Caesar or Macbeth?'"  Sometimes, though, "It was like reading
  an education journal" in a positive sense, "where theory and
  practice meet up."

  Some classmates who had not found teaching jobs got on the
  Teachers Network but inevitably stopped participating.  To her
  surprise, arrogant classmates she "couldn't stand" in school were
  likable and helpful on the network, all struggling with similar

  "It allowed me to see the longer range.  With intense, miserable
  experiences every day there is a tendency to say 'forget it.'"
  Students encourage each other or just "vent."  Discussing
  differences in the methods encountered in different schools
  enabled her to see that some problems she faced in her all-white
  private school were not universal.  After a year she moved to
  an inner-city magnet school, where she says she is much happier.
  ("I wouldn't say Augusta has an inner city, but that's what they
  call it.")

  Her year of computer rental up, she bought a computer to stay on
  the network but finds herself participating less in the forums,
  which remain focused on first-year problems raised by the newly
  graduated class.  (This year for the first time current students
  at Harvard can monitor and (rarely) participate.)  She mostly
  uses private forums (email) to a few friends who also stayed on.

  It seemed a very special set of circumstances so I asked her
  uncertainly whether she sees any other uses for networks of
  this sort.  She was ready.  "Parents!  Of kids in the same age
  group.  I'm thinking of starting a newsletter for them.  Parents
  of middle school kids see their kids turn into monsters and
  don't know what to do.  It's a monstrous age, difficult to
  live through.  Seventh grade is the height of monsterness."
  She laughed.  "Parents need to be told "you were a monster when
  you were 13 and your children's children will be monsters when
  they're 13."

  She sees many opportunities.  "Networks for parents of infants.
  For people starting new businesses..."


  This month's recommendations.

  Alessandro Duranti and Charles Goodwin, eds, Rethinking Context:
  Language as an Interactive Phenomenon, Cambridge: Cambridge
  University Press, 1992.  A tremendously intelligent collection
  of articles about the phenomenon of "context" in language.  The
  idea, roughly, is that "context" isn't just a sort of cloud that
  hangs around and determines or changes the meanings of words.
  Rather, context is something that people are *doing* through the
  ways they interact with one another.

  Philip Lesly, Overcoming Opposition: A Survival Manual
  for Executives, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall,
  1984.  A belligerently reactionary defense of established
  authority against campaigns of activists, including some rather
  sophisticated counter-tactics.  He advocates propagating a steady
  stream of "facts" that make things seem complicated, since people
  will be quiescent if the picture isn't clear.  He also suggests
  supporting groups that favor the organization's own goals.  As
  one might expect, he grossly caricatures and oversimplifies the
  activists' positions (not that all anti-corporate activists think
  clearly, of course).  It's not clear whether he really believes
  these things -- his big example throughout is infant formula in
  the Third World -- or whether it's just good strategy to position
  activists' views as oversimplified caricatures etc.  The book
  is eminently quotable throughout and is clearly addressed to
  business executives who feel the need for an ego boost after all
  the attacks on their legitimacy.



  One impassioned reader of TNO 1(2) actually called me a Communist
  sympathizer.  Given that the rhetoric of political repression
  is coming back at full strength, it would probably behoove me to
  point out that I am a life-long opponent of Communism.  My core
  value, and the core value of TNO, is democracy.  Conservatives in
  the US are increasingly open about their opposition to democracy.
  One manifestation of this is the increasingly frequent practice
  of coining metaphors that compare democratic liberalism with
  the Soviet Union, thus insinuating that liberals are basically
  Communists.  For example, conservative Republican strategists
  have recently taken to referring to Bill Clinton's health-care
  proposal as "liberalism's Afghanistan", the over-reaching
  invasion that demonstrates the regime's underlying weaknesses
  and helps bring it crashing to the ground.  Many of them also
  like to portray democracy as "two wolves and a sheep voting",
  when the more common picture, of course, involves one wolf and
  twenty sheep.

  Heaven knows that democracy in my own country is pretty messed
  up at the moment, but that's why I'm writing TNO.  My view is
  that democracy is first and foremost a cultural phenomenon, a
  set of skills for actively getting together to run the collective
  life of the community while respecting individual dignity.
  These skills include getting help, communicating across cultural
  boundaries, networking, organizing things, and so forth.  None
  of these skills is innate.  All must be learned, and all are in
  danger of disappearing when people are manipulated into passivity
  in the name of some supposedly higher good.  We can use networks
  to alleviate this danger -- and to help reverse the damage that
  has already been done -- by sharing our experiences, information,
  strength, and good will, and TNO is my own small contribution to
  this larger project.

  Due to popular demand, the article on TNO 1(2) entitled
  "The art of getting help" is now available as a separate file.
  You would be most welcome to post it to your favorite discussion
  group, to beginners on the net, or to people who teach courses
  that involve Internet-based research.

  Phil Agre, editor                                pagre@ucla.edu
  Department of Information Studies
  University of California, Los Angeles         +1 (310) 825-7154
  Los Angeles, California  90095-1520                FAX 206-4460
  Copyright 1994 by the editor.  You may forward this issue of The
  Network Observer electronically to anyone for any non-commercial
  purpose.  Comments and suggestions are always appreciated.

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